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The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has expressed concern that COVID-19 recovery efforts are negatively affecting indigenous people. He also issued a report on the impact of urbanization on indigenous peoples. The Special Rapporteurs are independent experts in the UN human rights system.

On the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, marked on 9 August 2021, Special Rapporteur José Francisco Cali Tzay explained that the COVID-19 pandemic has catalyzed the promotion of mega-projects, and States have not conducted adequate consultation with affected indigenous people. To advance economic recovery, business operations have been expanded “at the expense of indigenous peoples, their lands and the environment.” Cali Tzay urged States to involve indigenous peoples in the design and implementation of recovery policies. This should be the case, he says, even in urban areas. 

Indigenous peoples living in urban areas is the focus of Cali Tzay’s 2021 report, which calls for UN Member States to, among other steps:

  • incorporate the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into legislation, policies and programmes in urban areas;
  • prohibit forced eviction and displacement, and ensure that involuntarily displaced indigenous peoples have the right to return to their traditional lands and territories;
  • ensure the participation of indigenous peoples living in urban areas in the planning and implementation of dedicated spaces and services that address their socioeconomic needs and to maintain and strengthen their political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions;
  • recognize and support community-based and intercultural education,
  • ensure that all indigenous households, regardless of their tenure status or income level, are entitled to and have effective access to essential services; and
  • collect and publish disaggregated data on indigenous peoples living in urban areas.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres also issued a message on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. He said recognition is growing of the importance of indigenous knowledge for solving climate and biodiversity crises and preventing the emergence of contagious diseases. He called for ensuring that indigenous knowledge is owned and shared by indigenous communities themselves. He added that free, prior and informed consent is central for indigenous peoples to exercise their own vision of development.

Guterres also observed a “deeply held resistance to recognizing and respecting the rights, dignity and freedoms of indigenous peoples.” He cited the discovery in June 2021 of a mass grave in Canada with the remains of over 200 children at a residential school for indigenous students who had been forcibly taken from their homes. The school had been run by the Catholic Church and the Government of Canada. The Secretary-General said this is “just some of the horror faced by indigenous communities at the hands of colonizers.”

In July 2021, the UN Human Rights Council released the annual report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the rights of indigenous peoples. The report (A/HRC/48/30) provides an update on activities to apply the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other relevant international human rights treaties. It notes that the pandemic has “particularly affected indigenous peoples [and] exacerbated the marginalization of indigenous communities in many countries.” It emphasizes that indigenous peoples play a fundamental role in the conservation and transmission of traditional indigenous practices that can contribute to increased food security, health, well-being and recovery from COVID-19.

The High Commissioner’s report concludes that:

  • indigenous peoples continue to face barriers to accessing State legal systems as well as applying their own customs and laws;
  • indigenous women and girls face a disproportionately high risk of violations of their human rights including through exclusion from decision-making spaces, vulnerability to different forms of gender-based violence, the adverse impacts of the gender digital divide and the limited exercise of their land rights; and
  • the land rights of indigenous peoples are not adequately recognized in many countries, and barriers to land titling persist.

In April 2022, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will convene its annual session on the theme of ‘Indigenous peoples, business, autonomy and the human rights principles of due diligence including free, prior and informed consent.’ Ahead of this session the Forum will hold a round of informal dialogues to support the development of guiding principles for the realization of the rights of indigenous peoples to autonomy and self-governance. The Chair of the 2021 PFII said this theme is timely given the “increasingly important role that the private sector plays in matters that affect indigenous peoples.”

The April 2021 session of the PFII focused on the theme ‘Peace, justice and strong institutions: The role of indigenous peoples in implementing Sustainable Development Goal 16.’ Discussions stressed the importance of  effective access to justice for indigenous peoples through mechanisms that do not violate or threaten their rights, and the need for States to recognize that indigenous peoples’ own justice systems are pivotal to ensure their rights to maintain their autonomy, culture, and traditions.

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